Press release

UK Government urged to permit use of techniques to prevent transmission of mitochondrial diseases

Leading medical research charities have signed a joint open letter to the Secretary of State for Health, the Rt Hon Andrew Lansley MP, urging him to introduce regulations to enable research techniques developed to prevent the hereditary transmission of mitochondrial disease to be used in clinical treatment.

The letter is in response to a report by the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority, which assessed scientific methods currently being developed at Newcastle University that should allow researchers to replace the defective mitochondria - the 'batteries' - of a fertilised egg, preventing transmission of mitochondrial diseases from a mother to her child.

The HFEA report described the techniques as 'potentially useful'. Although it found no evidence that the techniques would be unsafe, the report recommended a number of experiments to address any potential safety concerns.

Under amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, the Government is able to pass regulations that will allow the techniques to be used in assisted conception (IVF). However, these regulations will only be considered once it is clear that the scientific procedures involved are effective and safe.

Professor Doug Turnbull from Newcastle University, who is leading the research, says: "We are pleased to have received this endorsement from the HFEA. We are already beginning to address some of the experiments they have asked us to conduct, but this will take time. Our work relies on the generosity of donors who provide eggs for us to use in our research. This is the major limiting factor for our work. We would like to encourage more donors to come forward so that we can make rapid progress towards a treatment for these terrible mitochondrial diseases."

The report has been welcomed by Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust (which helps fund Professor Turnbull's work), who adds: "[Mitochondrial] diseases are often devastating for patients and their families, but the ability to prevent their transmission is within our reach. It is our duty to these families to do all we can to enable them to raise a family unaffected by mitochondrial disease.

"Professor Turnbull and colleagues would like to carry out the necessary research as requested by the HFEA. We urge the Secretary of State to provide assurances that regulatory amendments will be forthcoming to enable this work to be used in the clinic."

Video: Fertility breakthrough for inherited mitochondrial disease (HD)
View this video on YouTube
Running time: 3 min 2 s

In this short film, Professor Doug Turnbull and Professor Alison Murdoch explain the breakthrough that enabled the successful transfer of DNA between two human eggs.